All episodes directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
All episodes written by: David E. Kelley
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, Adam Scott, Alexander Skarsgård, Gia Carides.
Mysteries are tricky. The audience is constantly looking for clues, trying to figure things out, and most of the time, if someone has any smarts at all, the culprit is clear as day long before the final reveal. In a movie the audience is game because it knows that within a couple of hours everything will be explained, so patience is given. Think something like Mystic River. Most television shows solve the case within the hour and provide a formulaic structure week to week (any Law & Order or CSI show, and every imitator). When a series decides to keep the investigation of a single crime over several episodes, an entire season, or, worse, several seasons, thinks can get worrisome. The Killing tried this, and any good will it had garnered was squandered, causing a promising show to fall apart more quickly than a sand castle too close to the waves. Big Little Lies, a seven-part miniseries from HBO which aired a couple of months ago, is extremely predictable. The end was obvious to me by the second episode, and I had not read the source material, Liane Moriarty’s pulpy novel by the same name. But something really interesting happened… I kept watching anyways and absolutely loved every second of it, even though I had absolutely no interest in the final reveal because I already knew what would happen. The miniseries could have been a campy mess in the hands of Marc Cherry (Desperate Housewives) or Darren Star (Sex and the City), but it wasn’t. The story was treated with seriousness and gravitas, resulting in an awesome story, compelling television, and truly remarkable performances. I am such a fan!
The story centers on the California town of Monterey, a rich and liberal coastal hamlet filled with busybodies with not much to do other than gossip and insinuate themselves into each other’s lives. The premise is that a murder has occurred, and while most of the show takes place prior to the events of the death, interspersed are a collective of voices from the spectators, a Greek chorus of gossips and rubberneckers who are not important to the story and who offer contradicting hearsay to officers investigating the crime. Yet the night in question doesn’t occur until the very last episode, the six episodes prior do not touch upon those events at all, with the exception of the interviews. (Note: you may recognize some of these character actors from things like My Big Fat Greek Wedding or How to Get Away with Murder, but the choice to cast these roles with mostly unknowns is a good one, so that it’s never distracting.) Most of the drama in the initial episodes concerns the events surrounding orientation day for the new first grade class at the elementary school. A little girl is strangled, she accuses the new kid in town, parents get involved, things get ugly. This is Desperate Housewives treated with humanity, empathy, and played for realism and not over the top, campy mania. The performances are grounded and lived-in, no histrionics or showboating takes place – when tears show up they are genuine and never err on the side of melodrama.
First let us talk about the talent behind the camera, specifically the writer and director. The show is more like a long movie, and that is because every episode is written by a single person, and directed by only one person as well. This decision was a brilliant one. So many shows can be quite uneven in visuals and tone because of the shifting personnel from week to week. By handing the reigns to only one person provides not just consistency, but a level of ownership that makes the final outcome cohesive and unified. Jean-Marc Vallée has been making quite the name for himself. He is a true actor’s director. He doesn’t have much of a singular style, but he knows how to cast a movie and when to let the actors do their work. The Young Victoria was a beautiful movie and an excellent showcase for Emily Blunt, who was nominated for a Golden Globe. Dallas Buyers Club was nominated for best picture and won Oscar gold for stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. Wild garnered nominations for stars Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. He knows how to get great work out of great casts, that’s for sure. But he does have directorial strengths as well. In BLL his choices in lighting show extremely careful attention paid to details. While there is nudity over the course of the series, the shots are never exploitative or gross, which is an impressive stylistic choice. The editing and cinematography are mesmerizing, and showcase impressive leadership, so credit must be given to Vallée. It’s also important to praise the script, because it is phenomenal. The lines of dialogue throughout the seven hours of the miniseries were always effortless, earned, and overall so very strong. This all showcases the genius of David E. Kelley, who has been in need of a hit for quite some time now. Not too long ago, Kelley was television’s golden child at a time when show runners were not the superstars the are today (think Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Greg Berlanti, Aaron Sorkin, or Chuck Lorre). It was pretty much him and Dick Wolf. Kelley managed to create and write for mega hits like The Practice, Ally McBeal, L.A. Law, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, Boston Legal, and Boston Public. Many of these shows were on the air at the same time. But a string of canceled shows, never even started ones, and some really bad movie scripts began to befall him. It’s nice to see him pick himself back up, especially with a project as strong as this one. Here’s to hoping this might be the beginning of a resurgence for the writer whose work really entertained us for the better part of the nineties and early aughts.
But the show really belongs to the excellent and phenomenal cast. The thing I find most pleasantly surprising is the fact that a number of actors I may not have ever thought much of before, suddenly were elevated in my mind after seeing this miniseries. Specifically I want to start talking about two of the younger actors on the show. I always thought of Zoë Kravitz’s career as another case of nepotism (her parents are Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet), and it likely is, but finally she is earning her fame and privilege. Playing a second wife, a young and sexy body that her husband and other men desire, while the other moms envy her, Kravitz is given a role that reminds of her mother’s performance in Angel Heart, without all the gross male gaziness that that deplorable movie employed. Even though she’s been working steadily for ten years, this is the moment that I’ve begun to take her seriously and look forward to the work she’ll put out in the future. Likewise for Shailene Woodley. I just looked up her resume and I have never seen a single thing she’s ever been in. I’m aware of who she is, but I pegged her for just another forgettable young actor who stars in young adult movie adaptations or weepy teen dramas about love and death. I need to rethink my stance, because she shines in BLL. She goes head to head with a bunch of Oscar winning actresses and holds her own. Color me impressed.
That said, three actresses really take the cake here. And the miniseries exists because of two of them. Reese Witherspoon has been miscast in Hollywood for years, in my humble opinion, but the constant praise and solid film grosses only encouraged her and the roles she chose. I never bought her as America’s sweetheart and queen of the romantic comedy. There is a conniving and slightly mean streak in her (and I felt this way long before the infamous drunk arrest video). Watch films like Freeway, Pleasantville, and Election (the best role she’s ever played) and you’ll see where her talents really lie. Her sweet face and graceful features made Hollywood believe her to be just another ingenue, but she has a lot more depth than that, and finally this is a return to form for her. As a busybody mom with too much time on her hands, Witherspoon plays Madeline Martha Mackenzie a mouthful of a name that suits her character perfectly. She is always at the center of any drama, she causes it if she has to, and her balance of bitchy and sweetness is why she needs to lean into roles like this one. She is great, but she doesn’t shine when playing goody goody, she needs people to sink her teeth into. Laura Dern once again proves why she is one of the best. Playing Renata, the mom of the girl who gets hurt and bullied in school, and also the seemingly only working mother in the entire California town, she constantly struggles to fit in, be liked, and at the same time protect her daughter like the true business woman pitbull she is. She never knows exactly how to relate to the other women around her, she is playing a game she doesn’t know the rules to, and thus always seems to fail in her missions, she simply cannot keep up. Dern plays the frustration of a successful woman experiencing social setbacks with aplomb, and proves that the daughter of two famous actors (Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd) can be even better than her parents. Hopefully Zoë Kravitz took notes. Last but most decidedly not least, we have Nicole Kidman. I don’t know what it is, but each time I see Kidman in a role I am always pleasantly surprised. It’s like a weird case of amnesia. I don’t know if it was the years of tabloid drama or the public’s endless fascination and criticism of her alabaster pristine looks that err on the side of too perfect, but somehow her talents are always ignored when the conversation shifts to her. And yet her career is a collection of mesmerizing and really interesting and risky performances: To Die For, Moulin Rouge!, Dogville, Birth, Rabbit Hole… She takes risks, keeps working in awesome and interesting projects, and yet she just doesn’t get the same respect some of her equals do. Yes, she is rich and has won an Oscar and gets praises, but something about her doesn’t garner the accolades she so obviously deserves. Here she plays Celeste, a mother of twin boys whose husband is violent, but with whom she shares a disturbing and addicting problematic relationship of abuse, anger, but also attraction and eroticism. This role could have been exploitative, dangerous, and disrespectful, but Kidman gives Celeste complexity, agency, and strength, elevating another risky role and making her the true standout amongst a cast of superstars. If I ever gambled, I’d wager that the Emmys and Golden Globes will be very kind to her this year.
Adam Scott, Stellan Skarsgård, and the other male cast in this project are solid, but the show is all about the women (even the credits cut right before a male cast member can be seen towards the end), and rightfully so. This is a tour-de-force of great acting, great storytelling, and a strong shift in the miniseries genre as a whole, which has mostly favored historical accounts of great men (John Adams, Thomas Cromwell, Elvis Presley, FDR, etc.). I am so glad this exists and that I watched it, and even though it is over, I hope more people will discover it and give it a chance. Witherspoon and Kidman, who were the two actresses who produced this limited series, have already purchased the rights to another Moriarty book (Truly Madly Guilty) and will be producing it as another limited series in the near future. I, for one, will definitely be watching. I cannot wait.